Our Readers' Poll, Like So Many South Florida Votes, Falls Victim to Ballot-Stuffing

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This guy was unavailable in helping us figure out our voter irregularities.
South Florida is the headquarters of the hanging chad, the originator of the butterfly ballot. So perhaps it should be no surprise that this year's New Times Readers' Poll appears to have been hacked.

How or why we're not sure, but it has become clear that the poll we made live on the internet ten days ago has fallen victim to some kind of, well, let's call it voter irregularities.

The problem first became clear last week, when John Todora called. He's the owner of Whiskey Tango, the joint in Hollywood that was winning in the Best Bar category. Winning is an understatement:  Nearly 25,000 votes were tallied for Whiskey Tango, about ten times the closest competitor.

That all sounded good until Todora explained that he thought the numbers were impossible. Sure, the bar had been promoting it to patrons, but he watched his vote tally increase by thousands a day, far exceeding the number of people the bar told. "I thought it was cute for a couple of days that someone was voting for us," he said. "But then it became clear something was wrong. I mean, 5,000 votes in one day?"

Anonymous emails sent to New Times claimed that the automated poll system we were using, from Polldaddy.com, had been hacked. (It's worth noting that our parent company paid Polldaddy a pretty penny to run these polls, which are supposedly hack-proof.) The emails claimed that at least one local business had posted an ad to mturk.com looking for a computer programmer to create an algorithm that would automatically vote hundreds or thousands of times a day.

We couldn't find evidence of that. And Polldaddy didn't respond to an email request this morning looking to check whether the poll program had been hacked.

Update: Polldaddy issued this response by email:

it looks like your poll was hacked with some script. However you can see from the poll reports that the majority of votes are coming from the same IP address. You can simply remove these votes if you would like to make the poll more balanced. There is no cast iron way to prevent polls from being hacked, we have procedures in place to make it as difficult as possible but there are ways for someone motivated enough. The poll reports allow you to identify suspicious voting, blacklist their IP address and remove fraudulent votes. The onus is on the poll owner to be vigilant. Also if you know your poll votes are not originating from behind a proxy, you can set the poll to also block by IP address. 

We will soon be adding extra restriction measure to polls that you may find useful in preventing your poll from being hacked in the coming months. 

Thanks for sending on the information by the way, its a shame I don't have the script that the hacker used, as this would be useful in optimizing our procedures to prevent the same script from working again. 

-- Eoin Gallagher | Support Polldaddy.com

But then, there was the smell test. As in, something smells as fishy as Pat Buchanan picking up votes in Boca. For instance, our Best Strip Club category had tallied 186,000 votes. Sure, we like our strip clubs in Broward and Palm Beach counties, but it's not possible that we were picking up an average of 13 votes a minute for ten days straight.

Then there were our readers, who questioned the validity of the poll in the comments fields. Take this one from Helena from six days ago on our Best Restaurant in Broward County poll: "Wow, this is strange. I friend of mine voted a couple of hours ago and tried to talk me out of voting for Canyon because as she said, they already have a bunch of votes but Rok Burger only has 18. Imagine my surprise now that I was able to cast my vote for Canyon and Rok Burger has over 640???!!! How is that even possible in only a couple of hours??"

Good question, Helena. So much so that it became clear we had no choice but to halt the Polldaddy-driven system.

That doesn't mean we're giving up on this year's Readers' Poll. We are, however, scrapping the results so far, and admittedly that stinks for the thousands of you who voted legitimately. It stinks for the businesses that went out of their way to promote it on Facebook and Twitter and appealed to their customers to do them a solid. Yeah, that part really blows.

So now we're working on a more accurate system that will allow for internet voting without the fear of hackers and repeat voters. We will also be rolling out a text-message voting system that worked well last year -- one vote per phone number means no ballot-stuffing.

Have ideas on how we can create a better Readers' Poll? If so, leave them in the comments field. And hopefully soon, we'll have a poll that has a better voting record than, say, the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Office.


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Eric Barton is editor of New Times Broward-Palm Beach. Email him here, or click here to follow him on Facebook.
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28 comments
The Big Cheese
The Big Cheese

Any establishment that is in and of itself successful (profitable) does not need accolades from publications. "Best of", "Most popular", etc are ego boosters. Local publications recognizing industry leaders via consumer feedback is certainly useful and welcome, however, what a media outlet reports re: a service establishment's favorability factors will not make or break a business. What occurs every minute of operation within the four walls will. I am astonished to read that any business manager or owner feels that successful polling will actually affect bottom line if undeserved. It seems to me capital better used on systemic improvements to actually garner votes. Those of us who focus on quality products, solid & consistent caring / knowledgeable service and focusing on exceeding expectations do not need ratings. We have the most important asset, loyal & regular clientele who keep us profitable & open. Ratings, rankings & reviews only give us more opportunities to gain new clients. A highly rated restaurant or bar, once visited, is expected to satisfy expectations. If they can not, it is a massive liability. Hiring a coder for something like this is not only despicable but a liability to the perpetrators. If one must be dishonest to garner accolades, new clients visiting will quickly realize the falsehood & rant negatively against the venue. How is that beneficial?

Mike Linder
Mike Linder

One idea, is that the voter has to be linked to their facebook account before they can vote.

Bigshowmanagement
Bigshowmanagement

We really promoted hard on Facebook & Twitter, didn't see those other guys promoting but they kept getting hundreds of votes. Glad you did something. Let us know when voting returns, we really capitalized on winning BEST LOCAL HIP HOP ARTIST 2011 last year, NewTimes was on thousands of fliers, posters & banners we put up all over Broward for urban pop singer BRADY. We felt that had a lot to do with the interest peaking this year. 

John Todora
John Todora

Hi there,  I own Whiskey Tango.  We have never cheated to win our titles.  This system was not in place before this year and I was the FIRST to call and complain. Did you read the article?   Why on earth would we be stripped of our last two titles????  That doesnt even make sense.  You sound like an idiot.    We have never "forced" anyone to vote for us on anything.  We even had a national magazine call us the Best Bar in America.   Did we cheat on that one too?  I dont mind getting into debates, I just enjoy when they are intelligent ones.  Give us a fair fight in a contest and I know we can win.  Thats all we ever asked for.   

Beer Pong King
Beer Pong King

Noone turned them selfs in they got caught and said they did to try to make them selfs look better come on people... WT forcing people to is cheating number 1 and using coding to crack the system they should be stripped of the last 2 years of titles and taking off this vote so non cheating bars that work hard can battle it out and see who really wins 

United D&B
United D&B

im glad you guys caught on cause i saw it happening with the dj's some were getting mad votes and thier fb page dont even have mora than 100 likes. I have to say i been promoting the hell out of this for my man danny bled on of our resident dj''s that has been doing this for years he also works as a dj all over florida for bluemartini and holds it down for the ftish parties as well. im glad is going to come down to all fairness but i think we should start fresh maybe make it even for those that are the closest. with that said thank you for doing this every year its awesome to recognize local talent. thank you and have a lovely day!

36dman
36dman

That's actually pretty cool that some of the bars actually "turned themselves in" or whatever you wanna call it.   The Whiskey Tango guy is pretty cool.  I have seen him on TV a bunch. I gotta be honest.  I dont think I would call and say something if I was WINNING.  LOL But it sounds like this writer is calling out Rok Burger!!!  Thats pretty awesome!! Cheaters never win!!

TruthWatch
TruthWatch

looks like whisky tango is in finance trouble anyway according to bizjournals dot com

Whiskey Tango building targetedA building that houses the Whiskey Tango bar in downtown Hollywood has been targeted for foreclosure. U.S. Bank filed a foreclosure lawsuit against Hollywood Food and Beverage over a $3.6 million mortgage on the bar at 1903 Hollywood Blvd. The property was purchased for $650,000 in 2007.

Roastedbagel
Roastedbagel

"Hack proof system"....Nothing on the internet is hack proof. Any company that advertises that is false advertising, period.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Each IP address was limited to less than 100 votes, but it was reset in a few hours.

Meh
Meh

heres an idea... don't allow an ip address to vote more than once 

SolidGoldCheats
SolidGoldCheats

It was really easy to hack, actually.  It's funny because Polldaddy tried to use unique random ID's for each choice on the polls and even made them appear randomly on the list.  Only problem is you still need to put the name of the club/restaurant/whatever next to the buttons.  A simple "find this word" and then "choose the button next to that text" "and then "click submit" OVER AND OVER.

If the words for the restaurants were IMAGES instead of TEXT it would have been more "hack-proof" but still not entirely.  Well, it was fun while it lasted.  Good luck coming up with another solution.  That way the RIGHTFUL places will win.

Eric Barton
Eric Barton

Rok: Brgr seems to have collected votes the old-fashioned way: The owners posted the link on Facebook and asked friends to vote. I don't think they would've done that if they were also gaming the system.

@b8411282b2278ff5d7b2202ab33cd357:disqus emailed me this morning a list of local businesses he says hired him to game the system (Rok: Brgr wasn't among them). I'm looking to confirm this.

Cameraboy997Z
Cameraboy997Z

 How does that mean Whiskey Tango is in trouble??? It means the LANDLORD is in trouble.  Not the bar.   Thats how rumors start.  Sheesh

BTW: Who owns property that was purchased in 2007 that isn't in foreclosure!! LOL

Jennifer R
Jennifer R

 Really?? Hard to believe that place is in trouble.  Its packed ALL the time. 

D, Ritchie
D, Ritchie

"hack proof" is a relative term. What you have to do is make the goal not worth the effort. True, anything can be hacked but it's also true a newspaper doesn't need the security that a bank does.What I mean by "hack proof" is make it annoying enough that a few hundred bucks won't cover the cost of writing a hack.

D, Ritchie
D, Ritchie

 The way around the "time out" issue was to put two 5 second delays. One after the log in and one after the vote before the page refresh. That way you could run constantly without the 100 vote limit.Furthermore if New Times checks their logs, they'll see that they didn't even get the amount of page views to account for the votes. Why? Because the poll was running on a rogue server and pushing the results directly to PollDaddy.If you really want a hack proof way to do it just say so here and I'll tell you.

Eric Barton
Eric Barton

 Yeah, I looked into that. But the problem is that offices, schools, libraries, etc. using a server or wifi with a shared IP address would be allowed only one vote. New Times, for instance, has just one IP address for an office of a couple dozen people.

just sayin
just sayin

 The ID's were not random, the ID's stayed the same, the order of the ID"s were randomized, anyone with little knowledge of Java could create a script to automatically click in an individual ID regardless of the placement ;)

D, Ritchie
D, Ritchie

 "A simple "find this word" and then "choose the button next to that text" "and then "click submit""That's an extra step. I chose the button by it's ID. No matter where it was placed, it still had the same ID. I ran a few tests and the radio button always had the same ID. In order to be placed in the same database field, it had to. The submit button also had the same ID every time.I also took the poll and the submit script off of New Times' server and put it on another server by itself so I wouldn't have to load the ads and menus for every page refresh.

It was also necessary to put in two pauses to keep the timeout from triggering. How did you get around that one?

Funny how this has turned into hackers sharing advice and comparing notes :-)

Meghan
Meghan

Oh come on! Over 20k votes and that's the old fashioned way? They made everyone who came in vote for a discount, no way in hell they had 20k people in a week. They admitted to having a programmer also. 

TruthWatch
TruthWatch

Downtown Hollywood bar faces foreclosureA building that houses the Whiskey Tango bar in downtown Hollywood has been targeted for foreclosure.U.S. Bank    (NYSE: USB) filed a foreclosure lawsuit on Sept. 30 against Hollywood Food and Beverage, along with managing member Robert Hartley. It concerns a mortgage issued for $3.6 million in 2007 by KeyBank. The loan was sold the following year to Park National Bank, which later failed and had its assets assumed by U.S. Bank.The lawsuit concerns the 11,445-square-foot bar at 1903 Hollywood Blvd., which is just west of Young Circle. The property was purchased for $650,000 in 2007.Whiskey Tango is the tenant there. It was voted best bar in Broward by Broward/Palm Beach New Times readers this year.Orlando attorney Gary Soles, who represents U.S. Bank in the lawsuit, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.========================Robert Hartley happens to be one of the owners of Whisky tango, FYI, it's not a rumor.

Eric Barton
Eric Barton

Yeah, the traffic was another indicator that we had a problem. The biggest discrepancy was in the "time on site" stats -- they didn't account for how many votes were coming in. If someone were voting over the course of hours, the time on site numbers should've been much higher than they were.

And yes, please, what's a hack-proof way to do this? I'm considering switching to SMS only. It's one vote per phone number, a very reliable way to keep out ballot-stuffing. But it means no online voting.

WatchitRoberts   =)
WatchitRoberts =)

And how do you know so much??? I smell a disgruntled employee?  LOL

Let see if we can guess who it is!  =)

TruthWatch
TruthWatch

Not only is robert hartley the landlord, he is an owner of whisky tango

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